JS Bach: Christmas Oratorio

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WORKS: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248
PERFORMER: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Wiebke Lehmkuhl (mezzo-soprano), Martin Lattke, Wolfram Lattke (tenor), Konstantin Wolff (bass); Dresden Chamber Choir; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
CATALOGUE NO: Decca 478 2271


Here are two performances of the Christmas Oratorio recorded within weeks of each other; one in Bach’s Thomaskirche, the other in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus – both sharing the hall’s illustrious eponymous orchestra. One is conducted by Riccardo Chailly, better known for his Bruckner and Berg, the other by Georg Christoph Biller, the 16th Thomaskantor to hold the post since Bach himself. Biller uses the present-day incarnation of Bach’s choir, its distinctive sound characterised by light-voiced tenors and basses topped by boy sopranos and altos. 

Crucially, all Biller’s soprano solos are drawn from within the choir, producing a timbre close to what Bach must have heard; presumably the emotional demands of the elaborately-conceived alto arias persuaded Biller to substitute Ingeborg Danz for boy altos. Riccardo Chailly, meanwhile, uses the adult forces of the Dresden Chamber Choir and a full complement of professional soloists. So which performance is likely to sound the more ‘authentic’ – a slippery concept at the best of times, involving a delicate rapprochement between the letter and spirit of the score? The answer is less clear-cut than might be supposed.

Ironically Chailly is often closer to current thinking on performance practice. His tempos are almost invariably brisker, his recitatives incisive and dramatic where Biller’s continuo decisions sound curiously old-fashioned. And Biller is reluctant to jettison such cherished mid-20th-century traditions as easing the tempo for ‘and peace on earth’ in ‘Ehre sei Gott in der Hohe’, and inflicting portentous broadenings on the opening vocal phrases of ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ (as does Chailly). But the sound of the St Thomas Choir is a hugely potent ‘plus’ in the search for truthfulness, particularly when the sopranos hold a descant chorale line, or lend wide-eyed poise to aria, duo or trio – Part IV’s ‘Echo’ aria is utterly captivating. What a pity Biller didn’t follow the advantage through by using the colours of period instruments, given a score so pungently peppered with glowing rusticity and high-wire natural trumpet jubilation. 

The Gewandhaus Orchestra plays marvellously for both (a touch better for Chailly), but against the gamey tang of period instruments, the homogenous evenness evokes the uniform pearly-white perfection of cosmetic dentistry. Chailly’s soloists, on balance, are the more convincing, Martin Lattke a personable Evangelist, more comfortable in the higher register than Biller’s Martin Petzold. Ingeborg Danz, however, is a radiant jewel in the Biller set.


Sometimes Biller’s direction is a little matter-of-fact, but Chailly’s most turbo-charged choruses are worrisome – yet with what quivering excitement the shepherds hurry to Bethlehem! And ‘Ehre sei dir Gott, gesungen’ is instinct with celebratory joy. In the end, when not off the Richter scale, Chailly’s exhilaration is irresistible; Biller, however, never loses sight of the spiritual dimension, and in doing so finds an ‘authenticity’ that transcends any shortcomings. Paul Riley